How much do I need to write to get top marks?

How much do I need to write to get top marks at GCSE?

January 2018


A question students often ask when approaching an essay task is "how much should I write?" Undoubtedly, the quality of a response is not determined by the quantity of writing, and no published mark scheme for GCSEs will specify the amount that candidates are supposed to write. However, the relationship between answer length and marks gained is an interesting topic to explore. In this Data Byte we examine how the length of candidates' essays in an English Literature exam relate to the grade they were awarded.

January 2018 Data Byte large top of page image

What does the chart show?

The chart shows the association between the estimated word count of candidates' answers and the number of marks awarded on one of the exam papers making up an English Literature GCSE examination. The purple line shows how the average number of marks (out of 49) varied with the amount of writing. The purple shaded area is the 95% confidence interval around the average. The horizontal lines indicate the grade boundaries on the exam.

The data are from a higher tier exam sat in June 2014. The lowest grade achievable in the exam above a U was grade E. In this particular examination, candidates were required to supply a single essay response and were allowed a total of 45 minutes to complete their work. The word counts were collected by computer processing digital images of a sample of 5,000 handwritten scripts.

Why is the chart interesting?

The chart shows a clear relationship between how much candidates wrote and the grade they were awarded. Although candidates achieving the highest grades did tend to write more than other candidates, the relationship between essay length and mark flattens off beyond 700 words. This indicates that there was no benefit in candidates writing extremely long responses. At the other end of the spectrum, the relationship is stronger. Nearly all responses of fewer than 200 words resulted in a grade U. This suggests that whilst very long answers are not necessary for a good mark, candidates must write enough to make sure that the examiner can recognise their knowledge.

The median number of words written by a grade A* candidate was 694, implying that they wrote around 15 words per minute in the exam. In contrast, the median number of words in a grade E essay was only 450, indicating 10 words were written per minute of the exam. In interpreting these numbers, it is important to remember that some of these candidates may not have used the entire time available in the exam for writing. However, quality trumps quantity. Students with concise answers under 500 words were able to achieve top marks on the exam.

It should be borne in mind that these results are based on a single essay in a single exam and so the results cannot necessarily be generalised beyond this study.

Further information

A version of this figure was originally published in Research Matters, the in-house research journal of Cambridge Assessment. Full details of the study can be found in:

Benton, T. (2017). How much do I need to write to get top marks? Research Matters: A Cambridge Assessment Publication, 24, 37-40.

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Research Matters

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.